What Makes a Sustainable Vineyard? Certifications, Healthy Soil,
and Tasty Grapes

with Jason Haas and Jordan Lonborg of Tablas Creek Vineyards

Listen to Part One of this Series with Jason Haas, and Part Two with Jordon Lonborg here:

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Want to find something that will hold up 10, 50, 100 years from now? Then find something that’s already passed the test of time, and you’re sure to have a winning bet. If you want a very safe, look for something that’s spanned multiple historical eras. Deliciously good news: we are talking about wine.

The winemaking process today is generally the same as the first few glasses ever made more than 6,000 years ago. Why change a great thing? 

If you’re unfamiliar, here’s a spark notes version on how wine is made: grapes are grown, harvested, crushed, and yeast is added or cultivated naturally. Then the mixture ferments, converting the sugar of the grapes into alcohol. The mixture is then pressed to separate the skins from the juice, and the wine is aged, filtered, packaged, and poured into your glass. (That’s the best part!) 

But if we want to give our old friend a chance to continue its winning streak long into the future, we have to heed the ground it comes from. Sustainable vineyards are securing full glasses for centuries to come through farming and production practices that prioritize planet health.

Jason Haas and Jordan Lonborg of Tablas Creek Vineyard chatted about sustainability on the Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Podcast, including all things Certified Regenerative Organic™: their shiny (albeit it dirt-y) new distinction. 

What is Sustainability in the Wine Industry?

Sustainability in the wine industry has an evolving definition. The reality is that in order to sustain the land that gives us the grapes we need to fill our glasses, vineyards have to be on the cutting edge of land care. As conventional farming practices (adopted across agriculture-based industries) deplete the land and climate change create more and more untenable conditions for growers, sustainability increasingly encompasses reversing damage as it does preventing it.

Harvest-Sunset-at-Tablas-Creek-sustainable-vineyardIn the wine industry, certifications are crucial to understand the exact practices underway that move grapes from vine to glass. That’s because what constitutes sustainable practices is most often set by certification standards. So, when looking for true sustainability, we want to look for the certifications that demand planet health, understand the practices required to meet their demands, and familiarize ourselves with the reasoning behind those demands. But, more on that when we dive deeper into Regenerative Organic Certification™! 

It’s estimated that by 2022, organic wine sales will top 1 billion bottles. Consumer demand for organic indicates a concern for farming practices in wine choices, and excitingly, the wine industry has long surpassed mere organic standards in its charge for sustainability. There’s so much more to the healthiness people seek in an “organic” label.

But the industry operates at different speeds in different places. In 2017, four out of every five bottles of organic wine were sold in Europe, but as climate change continues to threaten wine growing regions in the United States, such as California, a shift is expected to farming that favors fewer pesticides (organic) and practices that prioritize soil health and land resiliency (sustainable). That’s why the West Coast is such a crucial leader in sustainability for the rest of the wine industry. 

How Sustainable Is Your Wine?

In short: most likely not very. Most winemakers use conventional farming practices to grow their grapes, which include unsustainable farming practices that erode the ground the grapes grow from. Because they erode the natural potential of the farmland, conventional practices require a heavy dependence on herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Jordan, the viticulturist at Tablas Creek Vineyard, told us that when he worked on a conventional vineyard, he saw plants become resistant to herbicides after just four years. Regardless of efficacy against their unwanted targets, those chemicals were successful in killing healthy microbes needed to create and sustain tasty grape production. 

The link between climate change and agriculture is pretty clear. Conventional farming practices like monocropping, heavy chemical use, and the use of industrial machines, all make it harder for the soil to do its thing and nourish plants. And those same practices perpetuate climate change while making it harder for the soil to take in greenhouse gases. Those same farming practices take place on most of the farms where grapes are harvested for wine, unless those vineyards embody the practices that prioritize the land through and through (often landing them with some certification). 

What is a Sustainable Vineyard?

Take a second to briefly picture where your wine comes from. Think about the ground, the vines, the grapes. Maybe you pictured rows and rows of perfectly manicured vines, neatly growing skyward with clusters of purple grapes hanging on each branch. Ideal wine country stuff, right? 

Yes and no. While rows of healthy vines is a must for strong wine production, the health of those vines and the longevity of the land starts with the soil the vines sprout out of. Soil health is largely dependent on its ability to maintain microbiome ecosystems uninterrupted. In other words, letting the earth do what it does best—sustain life.

Tablas-Creek-scruffy-hill-vineyardThat’s why one of Jordan’s goals as a viticulturist at Tablas is to reshape what we think of when we picture a winery. While the pictures we’ve come to recognize may look polished, the tidiness of those rows may need to look a little different than you pictured in order to yield the most flavorful grapes and to ensure the land can continue producing high-quality grapes year after year.

As the first Regenerative Organic Certified™ vineyard in the world, Tablas has the breathtaking beauty of the most picturesque vineyard, and simultaneously boasts the biodiverse scruff of a thriving, truly sustainable farm. A little more detail to help you reimagine that vineyard to pictured earlier: At a Regenerative Organic vineyard, you might see vegetable gardens, trees planted throughout the property, composting heaps, animals roaming the land, and a plethora of birds and insects, all there as evidence of the vineyard’s key resource: healthy soil.

Sustainable vineyards prioritize more than their actual farming practices, veering into general resource conservation and human justice as well. A key set of standards helps differentiate sustainable vineyards from others that take a more fragmented approach: certifications.  

Sustainable Vineyard Certifications

Regenerative Organic Certification™ 

ROC-Logo-BlackWhile there are a few certifications out there for evaluating sustainable vineyards (and Tablas Creek holds quite a few!), let’s start with the most rigorous and newest standard: Regenerative Organic Certified™. By building upon the regulations of a USDA Certified Organic farm, regenerative agriculture highlights soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness as the pillars of their work.

Soil is pillar one in the ROC™ framework. Why? As Elizabeth Whitlow, the Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance told us, soil equals life. Beneath the surface, soil is teeming with healthy bacteria, nutrients, and microorganisms that all work together to nourish the plants we grow while capturing and sequestering harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Without healthy soil, those greenhouse gases persist in our environment and fuel climate change while the soil degrades into dust. As a certification, ROC™ embraces this call to health from the soil the vines grow from, the animals that help manage the vineyard, and the humans that nurture and harvest the grapes.

Biodynamic

Demeter-biodynamic-logo-150pxBiodynamic farming is similar to regenerative farming and there are definitely overlapping practices like the use of cover crops, composting, and lack of chemical use. Biodynamic practices treat each farm like its own living organism and highly value biodiversity, just like its regenerative organic counterpart.

Every aspect of the environment is considered down to the lunar cycle best for growing and harvest. In both practices, there is an underlying perspective of farmers as essential stewards of the land. For a farm to be legally certified in biodynamic practices, it must be certified by Demeter, a nonprofit organization. 

Regional Certifications

sip_logo_smA couple of California-specific certification programs give sustainable vineyards the credit they deserve. SIP Certified provides a rigorous set of criteria based on social responsibility, safe pest management, and ecosystem stability. This Sustainability in Practice certification extends beyond organic and biodynamic to incorporate other earth-saving measures like energy efficiency and water conservation. 

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance Certification similarly focuses on overall impact in terms of resource use, community involvement, and ethical supply chains rather than actual farming practices.  

In states like Oregon and Washington, certifications like Salmon Safe and prioritize safe waterways for fish and overall water quality. 

Organic

Organic Seal - smallFinally, there’s USDA-certified organic. Unlike the certifications mentioned above that regulate the process with a more comprehensive approach to the agricultural process, organic is focused on treatment of the crops—what’s put in or on them to make them grow or look a certain way. Specifically, this means no pesticides, no GMOs, and no synthetic fertilizers.  Sulfites can’t be added to preserve the wine, so it might have a shorter shelf life. 

You may also see “Made With Organic Grapes.” This language simply means that the grapes themselves were made organically, but the additives like yeast might not be organic. Sulfites can be added to wine carrying this wording. 

Good farming practices means good product. It’s easy to see why wineries pursue a combination of certifications to make the best product possible and why USDA Organic on its own just scratches the surface for how sustainable wineries can have a positive impact on their local environments and the planet more broadly. 

Next time you’re looking for a bottle of wine, take a moment to look at the label and learn more about where it’s coming from and how the winegrapes were made. Depending on what’s important to you, you might want a combination of these certifications just like the wineries themselves.

The Future of Sustainable Vineyards

The future of sustainable vineyards is twofold. On the consumer side, we’ve seen behavior, especially among millennials and Gen Z, trend towards sustainability. More and more, customers each year demand more from the companies they support. We only have one planet, and consumers increasingly demonstrate an understanding that we have to take action across the board to sustain our planet. So whether it’s wine, produce, or clothing, we simply want ethical and eco-friendly products

On the production side, wineries are facing the unique realities of climate change, especially in California where 50% of the U.S.-based vineyards are located. As farmers, many vintners know that by switching to more sustainable farming practices, they can revive their land, enjoy more plentiful harvests, and help reverse the ramifications of climate change that they themselves are suffering from like drought and wildfires. 

As the general manager and a partner at Tablas Creek, Jason Haas is keenly aware of how the situation with the climate in California is deeply affecting wine growers. While it’s not necessarily top of mind for wine growers to change their behavior to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, they’re definitely noticing changes like earlier crop harvests and dramatic temperature changes. Sustainable vineyards are more resilient to extreme weather conditions because their healthy soil is better able to absorb water (making them better able to withstand heavy precipitation) and retain water (making them more drought-tolerant). As climate change continues to disrupt typical weather patterns, we can expect that these farms, built for resiliency, will prevail. This is one of the reasons that Tablas has chosen to farm regeneratively and why they think it must be the future of agriculture.

Tablas Creek Vineyard: The World’s First Certified Regenerative Organic™ Vineyard

Tablas Creek utilizes biodynamic and regenerative organic farming practices not only because it benefits the land and their workers, but because these practices simply make a better bottle of wine. 

Tablas is equally owned by Jason Haas’s family and a family from France, the Perrins. Founded in 1989 in Paso Robles, California, Tablas produces wine in the style of France’s Rhône Valley. Their aversion to conventional farming dates back just as long, with the Perrin farmers using organic methods in the 1960s (before it was cool) to keep workers safe from toxic chemicals and to foster a healthy vineyard, and therefore, better grapes. 

It’s no wonder then that Tablas Creek was approached to be in the pilot program of the Regenerative Organic Certification™. In 2017, they first spoke with Elizabeth Whitlow and as they were already Biodynamic Certified and Certified Organic, they were a great fit to help adapt the framework for vineyards. 

Jason Haas, Partner and General Manager of Tablas Creek

sustainable-vineyard-jason-haas-tablas-featureAs a second-generation proprietor of Tablas Creek Vineyards, you can say that wine runs in Jason’s blood. In fact, Jason is actually a third-generation wine person, since his grandfather received one of the first liquor licenses in New York City after the repeal of prohibition and started selling top wines he sourced himself from France. This is how Jason’s father got so interested in wine and how Tablas Creek was born!

In hearing him speak about how Tablas has evolved to gain new certifications and raise the standards for other wineries from Napa Valley to Sonoma and beyond, you can tell that Jason takes pride in the potential of not only their vineyard, but the entire industry.

“We’re super proud to be the first (ROC vineyard) but it’s also something that I hope we’re not the only one for long. I love the inclusiveness of the way that this has been set up.”

Jordan Lonborg, Viticulturist at Tablas Creek

jordan-sustainable-vineyard-tablas-featureArmed with a degree in Fruit Science from Cal Poly and a deep love for perennial farming systems and viticulture, Jordan started working with Tablas Creek after seeing the detriment of conventional farming practices on a traditional vineyard he helped manage for four years.

Jordan wasn’t happy applying pesticides and instead started at Tablas, where he felt like he was really farming again. 

As the viticulturist, Jordan was incredibly involved with the implementation of the Regenerative Organic Certification™.

Although Tablas already had other agricultural certifications, he found it unique that the certification’s main goal is to combat climate change through farming. Different from other certifications, Jordan was won over by the social fairness pillar of the certification as well, seeing value in elevating the participation and inclusion of their whole crew in their operations.

Closing: Better Winegrowing for a Better Planet 

Even though winemaking has been happening for centuries, we must adjust as the times require. Today, that means improving winegrowing practices to prioritize environmental stewardship, social equity, and help in the fight against climate change. 

As consumers, we have the unique ability to vote with our dollars and support the wineries who invest time and resources into meeting the standards for certifications that help keep our planet healthy and wine glasses full for future generations. If it’s as simple as looking at the bottle and scanning for those certifications (and it is), we can all appreciate a brief pause before we pour. 

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